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Women in Science

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Video clip: Elspeth, who did a doctorate (DPhil) in nuclear physics, found it was tough working in a ‘man’s world’. Later she moved to molecular biophysics, where she worked for a highly respected female head of department.

Anyway, I was there [CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research] in 1975 as a summer student and again there were a hundred and twenty summer students of which five were girls, or something, maybe eight at the most. And the group who got me weren’t quite sure what they’d got. It was a hundred per cent men apart from me as a female summer student. So I was starting to realise that this really was a man’s world, physics.

So I did my DPhil in nuclear physics and that was very tough because none of the groups wanted this woman who had arrived because a lot of the work was very heavy. So we had to move helium cylinders around. We had to push helium, gaseous helium in very heavy tanks from nuclear physics over to the Clarendon lab for recycling. But my group gradually accepted me when they realised that I was a rower and I was actually stronger than some of the men in the group. But there was always the thing where you had to be a bit better than the boys in order to be accepted. Especially for visiting scientists who came on sabbatical or particularly some scientists from oversees who just didn’t want to work with a woman. And there was one particular incident where my group actually mutinied because a visiting scientist said that he didn’t want me on the experiment. And the rest of the group said, ‘But she’s the only person who can actually programme the computer and assemble a code and make it talk to the electronics and so we have to have her. And we won’t work with you, if you won’t work with her.’ And that was a really low point I have to say. But after the first one or two years I just decided that I was who I was and that they would have to accept that. But I always had the feeling that I had to be a bit better than the boys, because if I made a mistake it was obvious, ‘Oh, the woman’s made the mistake.’

One of the things I loved about the new job as opposed to nuclear physics was that we are about half women and half men in molecular biophysics and I had colleagues where we were all equal. It was never an issue at all. We had a lady Head of Department who is very highly respected and I never felt that being a woman scientist was anything to remark about.